Review By Regan Baker
It seems like an age since I’ve had the pleasure of venturing back to the Playhouse Theatre at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre and I couldn’t have asked for my return to be for a better show. Casting my mind back to August 2020, I recall seeing signs across Brisbane for this little Queensland Theatre show called, ‘Boy Swallows Universe’ and I remember thinking to myself, “Pass.” Oh, how my mind has changed in the last twelve months! Originally slated for the 2020 Brisbane Festival the show was forced to postpone due to a lockdown here in South East Queensland, but the strong relationship between Queensland theatre, Brisbane Festival and QPAC kept the dream of premiering this story on stage alive – just, a year later.
When local author Trent Dalton put pen to paper back in 2015 his words turned into Australia’s fastest ever selling debut novel (of the same name) and he quickly captured the imagination of the nation. So successful was his story that it was quickly taken on board and adapted for the stage by the brilliant Tim McGarry, with the incredibly talented director, Sam Strong, attached also.
‘Boy Swallows Universe’ is a story that takes place not that far away (right here in Brisbane to be exact) and tells of young Eli Bell’s journey of self-discovery through a childhood riddled with drug dealers and crime families, joy and heartbreak, magic and mystery and of the power that love has in overcoming even the most dire of circumstances.
There was an awe of beauty in watching this story unfold as the countless local references and demographical quips added to the theatre of making the story seem so real. From Eli’s desire to work for the Courier Mail in Bowen Hills, a building which is spitting distance from my apartment, or from his constant yearning to live in a snooty cul-de-sac in the Gap, a suburb of which I know only one resident, who is in fact – very snooty. Whether you were a local or not, the familiarity of Australian humour and immersion of a local setting was comforting, despite the dark underworld that encompassed Eli’s upbringing. I have watched a lot of Brisbane-based productions, but none compare to this. ‘Boy Swallows Universe’ is one of the most captivating stories I’ve ever seen and by far the best Queensland Theatre production I’ve had the privilege to review.
The tight-knit collaboration from Dalton (author), McGarry (adaption) and Strong (director) lead to the superb execution of this story that held significant weight against the original book. Through Their combined creativity and direction they deliver a story that brilliantly balances the brutality of torturing a family for information, with the light-hearted joys of innocent young love. Similarly, Strong utilises the vastness of the stage to create a sense of isolation when necessary or filled it with light and motion to celebrate those fleeting moments of joy Eli experienced with his family.
In only his third stage appearance Joe Klocek shone in the lead role of Eli Bell, delivering a multi-dimensional and layered portrayal of the character. His performance resonated of a traumatised teenager struggling with the weight of the world on his shoulders and the difficult choice of choosing which path his life will take. He was impassioned, emotional, traumatised, strong and loving, while remaining completely human and believable in his delivery.
In an equally powerful performance Michaela Banas produced an emotionally raw and challenged Frankie Bell. She shifted between volatile drug addict, to caring mother to physically abused spouse with realistic simplicity, delivering a complex and deep character. Tom Yaxley also deserves high regards as the mostly-mute August Bell for his ability to create intense emotion and vulnerability in a character that only speaks about 10% of the time. In addition, Anthony Phelan (Tytus Broz / Slim Halliday), Joss McWilliam (Iwan Krol / Alex Bermudez) and Andrew Buchanan (Teddy Kallas) are dynamic and multi-talented actors that play their villainous roles in particular with immense conviction.
While I don’t have the wordcount to single everyone out, the performances across the board from the entire cast and ensemble were near flawless and completely drew the audience into the realism of the story. What was most exciting and unexpected for me though, was just how much of a character the lighting and 3D image mapping played a role in the story. Ben Hughes is the man with the bulbs of glory and has been designing gorgeous lighting environments with QLD Theatre for more shows than I can count. His hues (pun intended) created dark and ominous landscapes that delved deep into the dark underworld of the Brisbane crime scene. Couple this with the incredible projection mapping from video designer, Craig Wilkinson, and associate motion designer, Jordan Pena, and an entire universe was created in the mostly blank canvas of the Playhouse set. I’ve seen only one other show with projection mapping of this scale, which was Frozen (The Musical) and I would argue that this was just as good quality and just as immersive.
There is so much more I could, and want to say about this production as it has, by far, been the most standout performance in Queensland this year. Crafted superbly for the stage, this adaption hit almost every note of my emotional repertoire and left a lasting impression of a story created in our very own backyard.